From Baghdad to Jakarta

With today’s bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the issue of terrorism appears set to reclaim the attention of the Australian electorate. The bombing is surely the work of JI, with possible assistance from al-Qaeda, and reaffirms the need for Australia to systematically combat the spreading influence of Islamic fundamentalism across the sprawling Indonesian archipelago and within south-east Asia more generally (an issue discussed as some length in Imagining Australia).Howard and Latham have both rightly condemned the attack in the strongest possible terms and have demanded that the terrorists be hunted down. But let me take this opportunity to ask why JI is targeting Australia and what Howard and Latham should do about it. In this context, let me also respond to one of David’s earlier postings about Australia’s participation in the war in Iraq and terrorism more broadly.

It is conventional wisdom on the left that Australia’s involvement in Iraq and our membership of the Coalition of the Willing has made us targets of Islamic fundamentalists in our region. But this argument, while obviously true to some degree, ignores the fact that the antipathy of JI owes much more to Australian involvement in East Timor than any misadventure in Iraq. The Bali bombings, for example, which occurred well before Australia committed troops to Iraq, were said to be in retribution for Australia’s efforts to secure East Timorese independence, disrupting the dream of an Islamic Caliphate. In this instance, Australia, albeit tardily, was prepared to risk the ire of terrorists to do the right thing. What then about Iraq? Was Australian participation in Iraq the right thing to do, even if it did increase our susceptibility to future terrorist attacks?

I think it is quite clear that neither Howard nor any other supporter of the war (including myself) would have entertained that option had we known then what we know now, namely that Iraq had no WMD. But we quickly forget that, at the time, there was widespread consensus that Saddam had WMD. There was, for example, a unanimous Security Council resolution in November 2002 demanding that Iraq disarm immediately. Intelligence agencies the world over – including in nearly ever Arab regime – believed that Saddam had such weapons. It is easy in hindsight to point to those few individuals (like Scott Ritter) who were cautioning otherwise. But at the time, in the wake of 9-11, why should we have trusted a serial liar like Saddam? It was never incumbent on the international community to find his weapons; rather, it was incumbent on Saddam to show us that he didn’t have them, much as South Africa and Ukraine had done in the 1990s.

Further, all other options open to the international community were bad. The sanctions regime had become indefensible, with Saddam profiting billions by siphoning from the Oil for Food program, while ordinary Iraqis were left to suffer and starve. The US and the UK were bombing Iraqi defense positions on a weekly basis and maintaining a large garrison in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Arab news networks, such as al-Jazeera, were broadcasting images of the bombings and the starvation of ordinary Iraqis, all the while inflaming anger against the West. There was no doubt that the sanctions regime had to end – but what was to be the alternative? Conciliation? That looked like a bad idea at the time, and still looks like a bad idea today.

I think the most defensible position, in hindsight, is that Iraqi regime change was a worthwhile objective, disastrously executed. US diplomacy was appalling from the beginning, owing much to American arrogance. And post-war planning was inexcusably non-existent. Anyone who reads Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack comes away with a sense of awe at the planning for the actual war, and incredulity that so little attention was given to the more difficult task of reconstruction. This is inexcusable in terms of Coalition troops subsequently killed and injured, and in terms of Iraqi domestic security subsequently jeapordised. But I for one continue to believe that despite American incompetence, and despite the continuing instability in Iraq, the prospect of a semi-functional democracy in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Indonesia) represents the best hope to stem the terrorist death cult currently pervading much of the Islamic world.

But back to Australia and the coming election. It’s misleading, I think, for many of the reasons expressed above, to suggest that Howard lied over Iraq. Kim Beazley, I am sure, would have made a similar calculus had he been the current occupant of The Lodge (i.e. small troop commitment to a decent cause, big dividend). Nor do I think that Howard’s support for the war was an instance of nodding agreement with the Americans, although the prospect of strengthening the alliance was no doubt of critical concern. Howard rightly rejects the simplistic notion that the international community need only fight terrorism in Afghanistan or that it need only kill Osama bin Laden for the world to be safe again. But what the PM does not appear to recognise is that a broadly-based war on terror must also appeal to the hearts and minds of Muslims across the world. This means not only a hard-headed war against the perpetrators of terror, but also more genuine efforts to promote democracy and economic development (for some ideas on this see Ch 6 of our book).

Let there be no doubt, Mark Latham is my dog in this election fight. He’s a social policy wonk and a sophisticated politician. Anyone who reads From the Suburbs will know he’s the real deal. But Latham needs good foreign policy advice quickly. He needs to be tough on terrorism and strong on the US alliance, while promoting more innovative, structural and systematic responses to terrorism, particularly within our own region. He needs to paint Howard as right on the big picture canvas, but not sufficiently creative and innovative on the detail, where it matters. Today’s Jakarta embassy bombing is likely to make it harder for Latham to assert his domestic policy agenda and neutralize the PM’s strengths on security. But if Latham can handle this issue carefully and with strength and purpose, Howard won’t be easily able to make today’s events his new Tampa.

[Posted by Macgregor Duncan]

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2 Responses to From Baghdad to Jakarta

  1. Kay says:

    I hope you are right that Howard won’t be able to make this his new Tampa. And I think your suggestion that ‘a broadly-based war on terror must also appeal to the hearts and minds of Muslims across the world’ is right on the money.

    However I must take issue with some of your other points.

    ‘Was Australian participation in Iraq the right thing to do, even if it did increase our susceptibility to future terrorist attacks?’

    Good question, and I am prepared to agree that if it was the right thing to do – as East Timor was – that it was right regardless of the fact that it would clearly increase our standing as a terrorist target.

    However, this question was never put to the Australian people. Or rather, we were never sold the idea of ‘war because it is the right thing to do’. Howard clearly stated that we were going to war because of the presence of WMD. And despite your statement to the contrary, I do not think there was ‘widespread consensus that Saddam had WMD’. I for one was never aware of such consensus. I was aware of Bush pushing that line, and of the weapons inspectors asking for more time.

    Perhaps regime change in Iraq really was an arguably good basis for going to war. If so one wonders why regime change in Afganistan never was, prior to 9/11, or Sudan, etc. but in anycase, this is not the basis on which we went to war, and so yes, I do feel that Howard lied to us.

  2. Macgregor Duncan says:

    Hi Kay,

    Just a quick follow up on your comment. You say that Australians were never sold the idea of war because it was the right thing to do but rather because of the presence of WMD. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. What I was trying to say in my post is that war may have been the right thing to do precisely because we all suspected, at the time, that Saddam had such weapons.

    It is important to recall that the French, Russians and Chinese all believed Saddam had WMD, as did most Arab regimes. Soo too did Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Gareth Evans, Kim Beazely, Vaclav havel, Jose Ramos Horta, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, John Kerry etc, all of whom went on record in the months before the war saying they believed Saddam had WMD.

    So, while you are right to say that the weapons inspectors were asking for more time, I don’t know where this would have taken us. In the lead up to the war, the issue had become not so much whether Saddam had WMD but whether disarming Saddam was sufficient grounds to justify a war. In the end, the French, Russians and Chinese concluded (for their own various reasons), that war was not warranted. Interestingly, of the above-mentioned list of “lefties”, all supported the war with the exception of Al Gore and Gareth Evans (the latter after much last minute soul-searching).

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